Sci-fi television is often full of storylines about heroes who prevent the destruction of humanity, but post-apocalyptic visions have mostly been reserved for the big screen. From Mad Max to The Road and every zombie movie before and in between, we’ve seen our worst fears come to fruition and looked for hope beyond them. But these same dystopian dreams have begun to pop up in TV, as well.
Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse concluded its first season with an episode set in 2019 after the Dollhouse’s personality-implant technology has turned most of humanity into mindless violent “butchers” via cell phones and radio signals. Despite a smaller-than-usual budget, “Epitaph One” was one of the most epic hours of television in recent memory. Felicia Day starred as one of the few remaining un-imprinted humans who finds refuge in the old Dollhouse building, where she and her companions discover the origins of the apocalypse. The episode removed all doubt about the evil and dangers of the Dollhouse program and the morally corrupt choices of the characters we’d been following all season. It transformed a sometimes-complex show into absolutely intriguing TV. Fox, due to contractual complications, decided not to air it.
In several episodes of BBC’s Primeval, the time-traveling team encounters a future where super-powerful humanoid predators and just-as-scary giant insects have eradicated all of humanity. For a show that had been parading creatures from the past (dinosaurs, aquatic reptiles, flocks of dodos) into present, this twist saved it from feeling too much like its creators’ Walking With the Dinosaurs programs. Humans, it turns out, had a hand in creating the predators, and different moral conclusions about how to stop the coming apocalypse led to much of the show’s main tensions. Sadly, ITV canceled Primeval before we could find out if the end of humanity was averted, but now it appears a coalition of networks will help pay for two more seasons beginning in 2011.
Most recently, SyFy’s Sanctuary got in on the end-of-the-world action with an episode called “Pavor Nocturnus,” which begins with Dr. Helen Magnus waking up several years in the future with no idea how she got there. One of Sanctuary’s strengths has been the use of CGI sets, giving it the feel of a bigger budget show. Sadly, it didn’t use the savings to populate its enormous landscapes, relying on a handful of characters to run The Sanctuary’s massive operations. Even in this zombified future, Magnus quickly stumbles upon one of the few remaining humans who haven’t succumbed to the transforming virus, and it happens to be the show’s other main character. Still, the episode—which turns out to be merely a cautionary vision from a spectral guardian of the Mayan artifact that brought down the ancient civilization—was one of the series’ best.
All of these tales remind us of the dangers that come with the rapid changes we’re currently experiencing as a species—technological, environmental, biological. They serve as a warning about the unintended consequences of progress, which are steadily growing in scale.
But they also give us perspective on our current realities. The downturn and H1N1 are bad, but either could have been much worse. We may be headed for Armageddon, but we’re not there yet. And these stories can also leave us with a glimmer of hope—a fledgling resistance here, an uninfected colony there. Even if our worst nightmares come true, they tell us, humanity will find a way to rise up. And that’s usually a struggle worth watching.